Judge limits damages in Suitum case
A federal magistrate tossed out a claim of punitive damages in a lawsuit filed by a Sacramento women who challenged the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s regulations.
Bernadine Suitum sued the bistate agency in 1991 after it classified the parcel she and her husband bought in Incline Village in 1972 as a sensitive wetland, prohibiting its future development. The 1989 classification was part of a basinwide action by the TRPA to evaluate the suitability of all privately owned land for building, and effectively stopped development of the basin’s stream meadows.
The Nevada Division of State Lands twice offered to buy Suitum’s property, but Suitum rejected the offers, saying she wanted eventually to build a retirement residence on the lot.
The U.S. District Court first ruled that Suitum, 83, could not press her suit until she tried to sell “transferable development rights” assigned to her land in order to determine if she had suffered any economic loss. Suitum, supported by the Pacific Legal Foundation, appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled last year that Suitum was entitled to her day in court without having to first sell the development rights.
Suitum’s attorneys and the TRPA agreed to allow a federal magistrate to hear the case in U.S. District Court in Reno. On Wednesday, Judge Robert McQuaid ruled that Suitum will not be allowed to claim punitive damages if she is successful in the lawsuit.
Issued during a round of pretrial settlement hearings, the ruling does not affect the final outcome of Suitum’s case, but limits the liability of the TRPA if the agency should lose. The judge ruled that the TRPA, as a municipal form of government, cannot be held liable for such damages as emotional pain or medical difficulties, unless its actions were intended to inflict pain.
“The court has been unable to locate a single case that holds a municipality liable for punitive damages,” McQuaid stated in the decision.
Susan Scholley, a TRPA staff attorney, said the decision was not crucial for the agency, but was still welcome. “It certainly puts a cap on the extent of any loss,” Scholley said.
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